New York has long been a food capital, from the upscale kitchens of our finest restaurants to the bagels and sausages on the street corners. But as anyone who has walked around Brooklyn has figured out, the next chapter of New York’s food history has everything to do with the local, “artisanal” food scene that is making its mark on the city. From the rise of greenmarkets and food fairs to the focus on seasonal ingredients, these products embody a DIY ethos that New York City has had from the very beginning.
_The New-York Historical Society’s Museum store is introducing it’s A Taste of New-York History collection of specialty foods produced in New York City and State, including jams, savory condiments, and chocolates. One of those vendors is Liddabit Sweets, a candy company based in Brooklyn. Founded by Liz Gutman and Jen King, they make fresh caramels, lollipops and seasonal treats completely by hand. We spoke with Liz about starting the company, finding a home in New York, and just how they thought beer and pretzels would work in a caramel.
Were you always a candy maker? What got you started doing that? I actually came to New York for acting school. I graduated NYU in 2005, and kinda-sorta auditioned for stuff for a couple of years while working a terrible office job. I’d always thought about food as a plan B, and after realizing I wasn’t cut out to try and make a living at acting, I started looking into culinary school. I decided on the French Culinary Institute, and quit my job to work for a pastry chef for a few months before I started class. Jen (my business partner—she used to work in politics) and I met and became friends at FCI, and the idea of working together came out of that friendship.
When did you decide to make this a business? And why do it in New York? It’s funny, because even though Jen and I had done a few projects together, we were convinced we’d never be able to hack it running an actual business. And even if we did start a business, it wouldn’t be for several years, because we both wanted to travel and work under different chefs and learn as much as we could. And even if we did that, it would NEVER be in New York City, because it’s too expensive and the market is saturated and so on an so forth. Liddabit started as a weekend project; a way for us to try out new recipes and make a little extra cash. Turns out we really hit a nerve, and it just snowballed. We started the business in Brooklyn because we live in Brooklyn—simple as that!
You have some traditional flavors, but then you have things like Beer & Pretzel Caramels and Barley & Honey Lollipops. Where do you get your ideas for flavor combinations? Inspiration comes from all over the place. Our sweets are inspired by classic candies, by cocktails we’ve tried, by our favorite meals—all kinds of things. I will cop to the fact that the idea for using tea in the lollipops came from my former boss (and current friend/mentor) Rhonda Kave, of Roni-Sue’s Chocolate; but we were very upfront with her about it from the beginning, and since we do our own twist on it—and she’s a very generous person—it hasn’t been a problem. Jen is the production manager, and she has enough cookbooks to fill a library. Seriously. And she reads them cover-to-cover, like novels. The scope and breadth of her food knowledge is just astounding; so anytime she’s inspired by a particular ingredient or flavor combination, it doesn’t take too many tries to get something exactly how she wants it. She’s truly a cooking savant.
You also have a cookbook out! I feel like a lot of people would be intimidated to make candy in their home kitchen. Any tips for at-home caramel makers? The main thing is to have a good candy thermometer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be digital, but the one we use (it’s called the Maverick CT-03) costs around $20 online and is accurate, sturdy, and reliable. You also want to follow your recipe exactly. Read it ahead of time so you know how the timing is going to work, and you have everything you need—ingredients, equipment, everything—measured and/or set out before you begin. It’s not rocket science, but it does require a watchful eye and careful measuring. But people shouldn’t be intimidated; it’s so much fun, and so rewarding! Lots of folks bring baked goods to work or a potluck, but you really impress the hell out of people with homemade candy.
New York has many food traditions, and this new era of handmade, artisanal items seems to be a new wave in New York’s food history. How does it feel to be a part of that? Why do you think that’s important? We feel really lucky to be a part of the food community; and not necessarily because we’re in New York, or the handmade movement; people who work in food are a very particular type of crazy, and there are a lot of tight bonds formed because of that craziness.
As far as being part of what’s happening in New York particularly, a lot of that was a right-place-right-time sort of thing. Yes, we make (in my humble opinion) a truly outstanding product; and yes, we’ve poured four solid years of blood, sweat, and tears into this business; and I do think the movement towards higher-quality, “slower” food is important. But not because it happens to be kind of fashionable right now; because I think it signals a change in the way we as a country (and to different extents globally) are thinking about food, and how it’s produced and consumed. For the past ~60 years, the movement has been towards convenience, efficiency, all that stuff. And I understand that impulse, and it makes sense—or did, for a long time. But I think that momentum has carried food past where it makes the consumer’s life easier, and over to a place where it’s just a way for a few really big companies to make a bunch of money because they’ve convinced you that’s the only way to eat. And it can be an uphill battle to explain to customers why what we make is so much pricier than a mass-produced candy bar: because it’s made with real, fresh ingredients, by skilled people, every single day we’re in the kitchen. The product speaks for itself; once folks give it a try, it makes more sense.
But we’re just a small part of that; we’re a specialty item, you know? For other stuff—pickles, jams, cured meats, bread, yogurt, staples like that—we’ve gotten so far away from knowing how to make that on our own, in our kitchens, that of course it’s surprising when you see a loaf of bread that costs twice as much as it does in the grocery store! But if you go home and bake a loaf of bread, you understand on a gut level the amount and type of care that goes into making something that seems so ordinary. The fact that people are getting so much more interested in cooking at home ties into the interest in the artisanal food thing; it’s a level of understanding between the producer and the consumer, and I think that’s really the crux of why it’s so important. Human relationships are a big part of food, and a big part of why people start working in food. It’s a tangible way to care for another person, to make them something that nourishes their body. That’s where most of us started—wanting to have that feeling of making other people feel cared for and nourished. Sounds cheesy, but I think it’s a much better direction to be headed in.
And now, a recipe from the Liddabit Sweets cookbook!
BUCKEYESMakes about fifty 1½-inch buckeyesWe were asked to make these as wedding favors for a friend, and we kind of rolled our eyes. Buckeyes? Really? But they’re so . . . boring. Peanut butter filling, rolled into balls and dipped in chocolate to resemble horse chestnuts. Sure, they’re a favorite of Ohio natives, where the buckeye is the official state tree; and sure, they’re easy enough to make. But where’s the challenge? The excitement? Didn’t they want something fancier for a wedding?Yeah, right. Peanut butter and chocolate is a classic combination for a reason, and this recipe gets it all right: rich, peanutty, and smooth, with a little texture from the nut f lour, and the richness cut by the bitterness of the dark chocolate. The container of extra buckeyes in the fridge lasted maybe a day. We’re not even gonna tell you how many were in there to start with. You wouldn’t believe it.
• Stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, or electric mixer with large bowl
• 2 large (13″ x 18″) rimmed baking sheets, lined with parchment or wax paper
• Wooden toothpicks
For the centers
¼ cup (60 g) cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups (275 g) creamy commercial peanut butter, such as Skippy
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks/150 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons (10 g) fine sea salt
1 cup (85 g) almond or peanut flour (see Note)
3 cups (400 g) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
For dipping and garnish
About 4 cups (26 ounces/740 g) chopped dark chocolate, or 3 cups (19 ounces/540 g) chopped dark chocolate and½ cup (4 ounces/110 g) mild vegetable oil
Coarse sea salt (optional)
1 Make the centers: Combine all the ingredients in the mixer bowl and beat on medium-high speed until completely incorporated and creamy-looking. Cover and refrigerate the peanut butter mixture until it has firmed up a little (it should be pliable but hold its shape), about 30 minutes.
2 Scoop up a tablespoon of the mixture, roll it into a ball with your hands, and place it on one of the prepared baking sheets; repeat with the remaining mixture. Once all the mixture has been formed, place the balls in the refrigerator until firm, about 30 minutes. (Any leftover peanut butter mixture can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge for up to a week.)
3 Prepare the dipping chocolate: Temper the 4 cups dark chocolate according to the instructions on page 26 or melt it as directed on page 24. Or use the 3 cups dark chocolate and ½ cup oil to make Cheater’s Chocolate Coating, following the directions on page 32. Place the coating of your choice in a large bowl.
4 Dip the buckeyes: Stick a toothpick into a peanut butter ball and dip it in the chocolate, but don’t submerge it—leave the top quarter undipped. This spot is what makes a buckeye a Buckeye! Transfer the buckeye to the second prepared baking sheet. Pull out the toothpick, twisting it gently, and either use your thumb to carefully smooth out the hole left behind or cover it with a few grains of coarse sea salt. Repeat with the remaining buckeyes.
5 Allow the buckeyes to set up until the chocolate is firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Store the buckeyes, layered with wax paper, in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.
NOTE: Nut flours are sold at specialty and health food stores. Bob’s Red Mill is a widely available brand; they have a great almond flour that works very well in this recipe, adding a delicate nutty flavor and hearty texture that we love. Peanut flour, which you can find online at Amazon, adds an extra-special peanutty kick that you should definitely try at least once.
LIZ SAYS: When we say “commercial” peanut butter, we mean the emulsified, no-oil-on-the-top kind. In the kitchen, we use Peanut Butter & Co’s Smooth Operator; it’s not quite as industrially shelf-stable as Jif or Skippy (don’t hoard it for the zombie apocalypse), but any minor separation that might occur can be ameliorated by placing the peanut butter in a microwave-safe dish and heating it gently in a microwave on High for 5- to 10-second bursts, stirring well between bursts. It should come back together.